Viking Talk


The history of Denmark is one of my black holes—in fairness, that’s true for all of Scandinavia, but occasional conversations with Norwegians and Swedes have shed some light on Norse historical antics.

What you’re told very much depends on who’s shining the light—the three stronger powers took turns setting the scene, although Norway was nowhere near as successful as Denmark or Sweden. Finland was not in the running—first it was ruled by the Swedes and then by the Russians—the big neighbor syndrome, which exists to this day, made it impossible for Finland to join NATO and led to compulsory military service.

The Vikings—a generic name for Norsemen—went everywhere. As far as Newfoundland to the west, and all around the European seaboard. The light green areas show the main communities and the blue lines the sailing routes—200 years from England and Ireland all the way to America.

During the Viking period, the explorers went up the Guadalquivir to Seville in 844, deep in the times of the Caliphate, on a series of missions of rape and pillage, but also selling blond slave girls to the harems of the Moors. A century later, the Vikings were in Istanbul—their inland routes are a map of the major European rivers, from the Dnieper to the Vistula.

I was given a Danish history lesson over a few glasses of excellent Ripasso—a fairly indifferent band played in the background, but it’s been so long since I heard (or played) live music that it warmed my heart.

It had been a very long day, including a stint at the Danish parliament and a number of press interviews—Denmark has a complex environmental problem and I had been asked for my thoughts on the matter. When it comes to press, the key is often what you leave out—I was repeatedly asked whether the Danish government had got things wrong, and had to explain that as a guest in their beautiful country it certainly wasn’t my place to provide a comment.

One of several Danish constitutions on display in the main hall of parliament—the oldest dates back to 1849. In other nations, access to parliamentary grounds in restricted and limousines are the norm, but in Denmark you just stroll into the outer courtyard, where you are greeted (as everywhere) by a sea of bikes.

Christian II is an unavoidable reference in Danish history. He was famous for attempting to give more power to commoners—this in the XVIth century—and for conquering Sweden, and infamous for the Stockholm bloodbath.

Danish and North German history are intertwined. Parliament has a paternoster elevator—I’d last been on one in Kiel over twenty years ago—and Copenhagen has three. One member of parliament famously went up and disappeared, only to do a handstand and come down the other side.

The flat and pungent north German province of Schleswig-Holstein was one of the points of dispute between Prussian and Dane—Denmark was so upset at the loss of prime agricultural land in the 1800s that it went on a reclamation spree, land-filling lakes and coastal areas to compensate.

At present, sixty-one percent of Denmark’s area is devoted to agriculture, one of the highest proportions in the world. This results for instance in forty percent of EU seed production—the Danes are the world’s largest producers of grass seeds.

Denmark, like the Netherlands and Portugal, is a small but fiercely independent European country. In these times of regression to a historical past of isolation and ‘me first’, it’s a privilege to make this my first post-pandemic visit.

A nation that highlights both individual achievement and societal tolerance—proudly Dane and calmly European.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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